Creating an enabling environment for equal opportunities for women through easy access to finance, information and technology and skill development programmes will lead to a better retrieval from Covid-induced economic shocks in the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) sub-region.Gender inclusive policies and recovery packages are vital pillars for such an environment. This was the message that came out in a webinar organised by CUTS International.
Setting its background, Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International said that dialogues on trade facilitation have always emphasised gender-neutrality; however, the ground reality is different. “Women are disproportionately affected by the Covid pandemic because of the nature of their business and prevailing uncertainties. A positive agenda in favour of women entrepreneurs is required for a post-pandemic economic recovery,” he argued.
He was moderating this webinar on ‘Impact of COVID-19 on Women Traders in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal’ organised by CUTS International on 25th March, 2021 as part of the World Trade Organisation’s Aid-for-Trade Stocktaking Event 2021. More than 75 participants from across the world attended it.
The webinar was held as part of a project titled ‘Gender Dimensions of Trade Facilitation: Evidences from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal’ supported by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office under its Asia Regional Trade and Connectivity Programme. A research report titled ‘Shepreneurs in International Trade: Evidences from Bangladesh, Bhtuan, India and Nepal’ was released on this occasion.
Speaking on the occasion, Kamala Gurung, Gender and Natural Resource Management Specialist, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development stated that the pandemic is not only a public health shock but also a global economic crisis. Illustrating the scenario of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, she informed that most of the women traders are in the informal sector that was heavily impacted by the pandemic.
She emphasised the role of civil society and government in protecting women workers through skill development and social safety measures while private sector can promote women entrepreneurs through strengthening of supply chains.
Cyn-Young Park, Director, Regional Cooperation and Integration Division, Economics Research and Regional Cooperation Department, Asian Development Bank stated that the pandemic has made an uneven effect. “Employment and labour force participation has dropped significantly for women during the Covid-19”. There is also an increasing evidence of increase in violence and discrimination against women and young girls”. She suggested that conditional and unconditional cash transfer is an effective way of supporting women to recover from economic shocks.
“Though there is extensive evidence to show that countries that are open to trade have reduced gender inequality in terms of opportunities and wages, the link between gender equality and trade is still largely missing,” said Mandakini Kaul, Senior Regional Cooperation Officer for South Asia, The World Bank Group.
“Digital technology and virtual platforms are opening new opportunity for women to overcome traditional trade barriers and enabling them to access market,” she added.
According to Selima Ahmad, Member of Parliament, Bangladesh and President, Bangladesh Women Chambers of Commerce and Industry, “The stimulus packages announced by the government are not reaching the right beneficiaries due to existing power imbalances in the society”.
She further pointed out that many women entrepreneurs who completely rely on international trade fairs and border markets were impacted by travel and transportation restrictions. She emphasised on the need for providing an enabling environment for women entrepreneurs not only in Bangladesh but also in other countriesfor their speedy recovery from economic shock due to the pandemic.
Kunzang Lhamu, Director General, Department of Employment and Human Resources, Ministry of Labour and Human Resources, Royal Government of Bhutan said that women’s participation is quite low in the decision-making process of recovery programmes and packages formulated by different governments.
“They are over represented in a number of sectors with low returns but high risks,like the hospitality industry. Support measures must include training, capacity building and awareness generation and direct cash transfers to the women entrepreneurs and workers of vulnerable sectors,” she argued.
Anoush der Boghossian, Head of Trade and Gender Unit, Development Division of World Trade Organisation echoed with previous panellists and stated that women entrepreneurs are the hardest hit because of the scale of the enterprise and that they work in low return sectors like agriculture and food processing. She pointed out that border closure has led to complete disruption in this already undervalued market.
While addressing the question on what the governments need to do to mitigate gender-specific impacts of the pandemic, she suggested that the issue of access to finance by women entrepreneurs should be addressed. “Many women entrepreneurs have used their savings for business operations to continue.”
In his concluding remarks, Pradeep Mehta, Secretary General, CUTS International highlighted the need for focusing on critical issues that lead to discriminationagainst women and affect the society as a whole. He further emphasised that there is a need to break the traditional barriers through affirmative action such as women’s rights in properties.
“Government, private sector and civil societies together can contribute to the needed change”, he concluded and hoped that specific trade facilitation efforts including collection of gender dis-aggregated data, sharing of success stories, capacity building for greater participation in the digital economyand representation of women in decision-making will lead to positive changes for women’s engagement and contributions to our economies.